Who, me? The problem with a “do not call” list

Should there be a federally regulated “do not track” list for the internet, similar to the existing “do not call” lists? There’s an angle to this issue that I think proponents are missing.

As at least one person has already pointed out, the internet doesn’t work like a telephone system. It makes sense to say “do not call me”, since the “me” is the phone number. But how do you identify the “me” who’s using the web? Schemes using IP addresses and browser cookies aren’t adequate, since they can often be shared by several people.

Contextual advertising tries to make smart guesses about what might interest the user, but it’s only as good as its assumptions about whether it’s the same individual who generated the browsing patterns. The fact that advertisers are constantly extending their networks to probe more data and perpetually improving their algorithms speaks to how difficult this problem of identification is.

This is not simply a technical problem, but one that has broader social ramifications. The crux of it is this: in order to say “do not track me,” there needs to be a “me.” Supporters of this initiative are, in effect, implicitly also supporting the creation of a strong identification mechanism. Any federal regulation would need such an id in order to sign people up. Otherwise, how would you? Who’s the “me” that advertisers shouldn’t track?

A “do not track” list might successfully limit advertisers’ collection of web usage data, but it would certainly also improve government’s ability to do so. Would privacy really be improved then? The more practical solution is to encourage people to make use of ad-blockers and secure channels, and to educate them on how to be more savvy web users.